Practicing Creativity

Practicing Creativity
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
May 20, 3018

Reading by Beau Lotto
We do almost everything to avoid uncertainty. And yet the irony is that that is the only place we can go if we’re ever going to see differently. And that’s why creativity always begins the same way: it begins with a question. It begins with not knowing. It begins with a “why” It begins with a “What if?””

Sermon: Click here to hear the full sermon

Creativity begins with not knowing. With uncertainty. With stepping outside of the box. Like, drawing with the “wrong” hand for example.

An exercise that actually has a story to go with it. Which I heard about from Debra Zagaeski, who heard about it from Rev. Claire Thoryn Feinberg, who first heard it from Rev Roger Paine up in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

It is a story about a time Roger took a drawing class with an artist named Agnes Carbrey.

Agnes was trying to teach the class how to draw with charcoal,
and one day she had her students pair off,
and take turns drawing head-and-shoulders portraits
of their partner.
But as we did it this morning,
she told them they had to draw it with their “wrong hand.”

The class groaned.
Agnes told them to look right at their partner’s face,
take charcoal in hand, start drawing, and don’t look down until they’d finished an entire line.

As you have recently experienced, when you try to draw with your wrong hand, your strokes won’t behave,
you don’t have any of your usual control—
but at least your inner critic is resigned to your fate, thinking:
“This is bound to be bad—how could it not be?”

Roger’s partner was a wiry man in his sixties named Bob with a kind, angular face and short white hair.
After five minutes, Roger’s charcoal portrait of Bob had made him look like a serial killer.

Roger was busy trying to fix it, to make him “look better,” when Agnes snatched his drawing away from him.
“It’s finished,” she said.

They were then asked to draw their partner’s face once more—this time using their “right hand.”

When they were all done, Agnes hung up the “right” and “wrong” hand portraits side by side.
And for every single person in the class, their “wrong hand” portrait was more interesting, more promising—
bolder, wilder, and more energetic.

In fact, Roger said his wrong-handed portrait of Bob
was the only good thing he drew in that class,
and Bob asked to have it—
Bob thought there was a hint of Chagall in the disfigured lines.

As we explore our capacity for fresh thinking, in this month of creativity, and as our new members give us a new opportunity to reimagine our experience of church, I wonder, as Roger did when he first told that story:

“Can we give ourselves the freedom to draw our faith, our beliefs—and our churches—with the ‘wrong hand?’

Which is to say: without any of our usual control—
in the worthy hope that as a result,
our beliefs and our churches will be
more interesting, more promising:
bolder, wilder, and more energetic?
Because our beliefs matter—they shape us—
and they can shape the wider world.”

What happens, when we step out of old, dominant belief systems, and become willing to draw outside the lines?

More and more, lately, I’ve been hearing the term, emergent church. It was a thing in the 90’s for evangelicals – it was about changing up age-old ways of doing things — taking their DNA, the core values of faith, and expressing that in new ways — different kinds of music, different ways of organizing — the megachurch movement of the 90’s grew out of that.

Now, 15-20 years later, it’s an idea that’s taking new shape– not just in church but, everywhere – this concept that life emerges, that we can’t control that emergence so much as set the stage for it to happen, set the stage for an imaginitive force that shapes and moves, inspires and creates.

One of the classes I took at a ministerial conference in January, called entrepreneurial leadership, was partly about this. About moving from yesterday’s design methods, toward processes that are more open, less predictable: group-inspired visioning. Toward iterative, collective, experiments that teach, and edify, as you go. Collaborative engagement. Co-creation. Fresh.

I just heard about a new book called Emergent Strategy that lines right up with this decentralized, experimental philosophy. It’s is making the rounds in social justice circles, but ministry circles too. It’s all about co-creation, collaboration, and decentralized imagination. A way of relating to the world which is fundamentally creative, in which there is no one right answer, no pre-made solution that we can just slide into place and go. Instead there’s an invitation to draw outside familiar lines, without our usual control, trusting some larger logic will emerge.

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that these these philosophies of openness are gaining momentum right about now.

The idea that there is a right way, or even one right perspective, has been losing ground for a while. When I was a kid there were authorities – people who were “right,” leaders, teachers, experts. Now, more and more, it’s all relative. We still have experts, but no one objective truth. We live in a post-modern world, philosophers tell us, when yesterday’s certainties have given way to today’s subjectivity. The fake news phenomenon strikes me as one outgrowth of this. If no one has the right answer, then how do you know what’s true?

And regardless of your political leanings I think most would agree that familiar lines, familiar structures and ideas are giving way to… something else. The way things have always been done? Is not the way things are happening now. And it’s not just in the political realm, but in the workplace too. I read an article recently about the decline of the 9-5 job and the growth, instead, in freelance jobs, people piecing together contract work, and piecing together the health insurance and retirement…Old structures, old security are giving way to something else, less defined.

And, on the religious landscape too, some say we are in the midst of an evolution or revolution in the way people relate to church. I’ve talked about this here before, ministers are talking about it all the time – numbers are dropping in most liberal denominations – due to this same trend of shifting expectations and attitudes… millenials and their younger peers aren’t looking for their parents’ church, at least, that’s what the sociologists are telling us. But they are looking for something. [sometimes desparately] One study referred to it as spirituality and community, in combination, without religious creed as a threshold. Another I read noted what these younger people are looking for is connection, authentic connection. A third mentioned service, millenials are looking for wamailys to purposefully engage with the world and make a difference.

And I wonder whether, in this non-creedal, collectively run, Unitarian Universalist church…. I wonder whether millenials, their younger peers, their older peers, all of you, us, here, today, might find our “something” in this emergent space.

It’s a question that seems particularly relevant as we welcome new members into our midst. As we expand the circle of co-creators here.

We have our DNA, our core values, we have our deep and resonant history that guide us. What does it look like to step, from that, with that, together, into a future that is unfolding as we speak?


It’s funny. As I was writing this sermon I wasn’t actually looking for a connection between this month’s theme and last months, but it just kept popping up.

It seems like the same conditions that lay the groundwork for creativity, set the stage for emergence. And vice versa.

I realized how similar they really are.

Emergence, at least the way we’ve been defining it, requires stepping back and making room for a deeper wisdom to show itself. It requires a letting go, and confidence in a larger process, or at least a willingness to be open.

Creativity, too, needs room, to arise. Can happen most when we become willing to let go, when we find some way to stop our inner critic from stopping us.

As I think about it, the more we learn to cultivate creativity in our lives, the more we will be able to make room for all kinds of emergence, all around us.

But we have all kinds of misconceptions about creativity. And that stops us all the time.

We confuse creativity with skill or talent – But they’re not the same.

There’s a story in the packet about a minister – when she was a girl – her principle sat down next to her as she was making something – 8 years old – making something out of clay, and he criticized her harshly. A crime how many of us that kind of things has happened to. Or we saw it happen to others. Can leave you feeling like the whole realm of creativity is for other people. Talented people. People who have gilded tongues or hands. Not us.

But the truth is, you don’t actually need artistic skill or particular talent to be open to creative expression. Creativity can come in so many forms. We forget this all the time.

Yet. It’s a total paradox that when we allow ourselves to enter a place where we feel a little clumsy, where we don’t feel confident, we open up new worlds, that stifling inner critic is temporarily befuddled and the spirit is able to speak to us in ways we might not have been able to hear before.

Wendell Berry writes: “when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Somehow we think creativity should be easy – emergence should be effortless – We see other people do things and assume that without some gilded gift of talent we cannot. But actually, the truth is, it’s full of blocks, calls for courage, requires tolerating frustration, and is inspired by a great intentional love that makes it all possible.

As in this story:

Late in January 1975, a 17-year-old German girl called Vera Brandes walked out onto the stage of the Cologne Opera House. The auditorium was empty. It was lit only by the dim, green glow of the emergency exit sign. This was the most exciting day of Vera’s life. She was the youngest concert promoter in Germany, and she had persuaded the Cologne Opera House to host a late-night concert of jazz from the American musician, Keith Jarrett. 1,400 people were coming. And in just a few hours, Jarrett would walk out on the same stage, he’d sit down at the piano and without rehearsal or sheet music, he would begin to play.

But right now, Vera was introducing Keith to the piano in question, and it wasn’t going well. Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said … “If you don’t get a new piano, Keith can’t play.”

There’d been a mistake. The opera house had provided the wrong instrument. This one had this harsh, tinny upper register, because all the felt had worn away. The black notes were sticking, the white notes were out of tune, the pedals didn’t work and the piano itself was just too small. It wouldn’t create the volume that would fill a large space such as the Cologne Opera House.

So Keith Jarrett left. He went and sat outside in his car, leaving Vera Brandes to get on the phone to try to find a replacement piano. Now she got a piano tuner, but she couldn’t get a new piano. And so she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, “Never forget … only for you.”

And so a few hours later, Jarrett did indeed step out onto the stage of the opera house, he sat down at the unplayable piano and began.

Within moments it became clear that something magical was happening. Jarrett was avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It’s an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it’s full of energy, it’s dynamic. And the audience loved it. Audiences continue to love it because the recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.

Keith Jarrett had been handed a mess. He had embraced that mess, and it soared.

Life is messy. The times we live in, are messy. We are handed so many frustrations. So many blocks, so many setbacks.

But may we remember that when we are intentional. When we allow love to inspire us, when we allow our history and our values to guide us, when we are willing to step into the unknown and risk being just a little clumsy there, not even our inner critic can stop us.

And we may just find the results that we co-create are more interesting, more promising bolder, wilder, and more energetic than we had ever imagined.